My first thought was Zuni, because a few crisp, salty oysters are always welcome, but Zuni is inconveniently closed on Monday. My second choice, Jardinière, a dinner-only place (inconvenient when I selfishly wish it was open for lunch or wonder what sort of food Traci Des Jardins would offer for brunch), opens at 5, so that's when I booked us a table.
But then I remembered that I hadn't eaten at Jardinière since last July (a singularly memorable meal, featuring foie gras two ways, sweetbreads, beef cheeks with truffled risotto, and freshly made doughnuts sided with a compote of cherries and peaches), and that there was a new chef de cuisine, Robbie Lewis, listed on the menu. I called and made a reservation for my father and me on Saturday. Jardinière is breathtakingly convenient for the opera and the symphony, both a block away, and the only time available on short notice for a Saturday night was 9 p.m. The place was buzzing, upstairs and down. I was tempted by everything on the two-page menu, one devoted to the evening's specials, and the other featuring the dishes of the season (which also evolve over time according to what's available and the mood of the chef). My father was more decisive: He wanted duck liver mousse, followed by a rib-eye steak, medium rare. After much waffling (cream of potato and green garlic soup with watercress purée? Le Puy lentil and smoked bacon soup with watercress purée? duck breast with Pixie tangerines, roasted turnips, and Savoy spinach?), I chose duck confit to start, followed by king salmon with morels, asparagus, ramps, and crème fraîche, and snuck in a second course of potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, nettles, and Parmesan to share.
It was another miraculous meal. When my father chose the duck liver mousse, I had said, "Really? You can have the foie gras terrine -- or the seared foie gras," which sounded amazing, with its caramelized rhubarb and gingered baklava accompaniments. But he stood firm, and I was glad he had: We polished off the seriously suave mousse, so smooth and chilly that it crackled as it melted on the tongue, and every caper berry and tiny olive and house-made pickle, until there wasn't even a suspicion of the dish left (well, just a few olive stones and caper stems). I had never had duck confit with candied kumquats, Medjool dates, and pistachios before, and it was a genius combination: the rich, melting duck braced by the snap of the citrus (itself altered by its sugary crust), the faintly musky dates, the salty, crunchy nuts. The gnocchi, while perfect in texture, seemed less well served by its faintly bitter nettles and mild rabbit, though my dad felt that it suffered slightly only in relation to the superb starters.
I had ordered the salmon mostly because I'd read a piece about ramps that made me remember their seductive slipperiness, their faintly rank combination of onion and garlic, their brief appearance in the spring; and indeed they are lovely to eat, alone or with the oily pink fish and the meaty mushrooms. The thick chunks of red-and-black steak, sided with creamed morels, asparagus, and nicely chunky crushed (not mashed!) potatoes anointed with chives, delighted my father: "This is the best meal I've had with you so far." "Dad!" I cried. "You've said that at least twice recently." But he stuck to his guns, especially after a cheese plate that featured several varieties we'd never had before, including Abbaye de Belloc, a raw sheep's milk cheese from France; Bingham Hill blue from Colorado; and a perfectly ripened triple-cream cow's milk cheese, Mt. Tam, from Point Reyes' own Cowgirl Creamery.
"Yes," I thought, "it would be good enough for Amanda." As I wait for her outside the restaurant, I am surprised to notice for the first time a block of ancient carved stone inset above the entrance that reads "Entrez au Jardin." How perfect a greeting for a writer whose first book, The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings From the French Countryside (W.W. Norton, $32.50), had recounted her relationship with Monsieur Milbert, who tilled the kitchen garden of the château in Burgundy where she cooked for a year.
But I'd read the book some time after its initial publication in 1999. I'd picked it up because I was so dazzled by the palate demonstrated in Hesser's columns for the New York Times, and the thoughtful, thorough, intelligent way she dissected taste and texture. I cite one tiny example, from May 2000, about grains of paradise, a kind of peppery spice: "I had no idea what to do with the tiny round grains, brown as nutmeg. ... I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander, releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper. The taste changed by the second. The heat lingered. But the spice was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts." Whoa! (It's no wonder that grains of paradise show up in one of the first recipes in the book, a dish of green beans with walnut oil, though they're described in less lyrical -- yet still seductive -- words: "The small seeds have a heat that resembles that of black pepper, but with a little nuttiness and a hint of citrus.")
Her writing is the writing of a gardener or a chef: labor-intensive and keenly aware of nuance and minutiae. In person, she is tiny, shockingly slender (she must possess an extremely fortunate metabolism), urbane, and, having finished a multicourse lunch at B44 at 3 p.m. and booked for dinner at Bacar after her reading, totally uninterested in more food. I quickly order the duck liver mousse and a salad of radish, fennel, and fava beans with ricotta salata, hoping to tempt her (or bully her) into taking a bite. When I choose the dishes, I'm thinking of some lines near the end of her new book, in an essay about what women eat when they're cooking just for themselves: "I like rich, full flavors paired with clean bitter ones."
I urge her to consider one of the many flights Jardinière offers of various spirits (not just wine), and I'm thrilled when she zeros in on the whiskey assortments: That's what I had hoped she would order. She chooses one. And I get to taste! (This is the girl who wrote in the same piece, "[M]y preferred dessert is a bar of dark bitter chocolate and a glass of Cognac.")
Cooking is a collection of the biweekly Food Diary articles Hesser wrote for the New York Times Magazine, extremely personal pieces about the meals she cooked for her boyfriend, New Yorker writer Tad Friend, during their courtship. But it's much more than that: She has reworked the essays and added lots of new material, over a dozen additional chapters. My copy bristles with the Post-its I use instead of scribbling "How true!" or sprinkling exclamation points in the margins. I find her Proustian (yes!) in her psychological insights. I remember asking a friend, when I was reading Remembrance of Things Past for the first and so far last time, "How does he know so much?" and I feel the same way about Hesser's book. It's novelistic. I think of something someone said about why he likes reading cookbooks: "Every recipe is a story with a happy ending." And she's funny, and self-deprecating, and I like her mother and grandmother as much as any other characters in literature.
I do identify with her, a little: We both think our interest in food began because we had mothers who were excellent cooks without making a big fuss about it, we both went to cooking school in France, and when we write about food, other things inevitably enter in. "[W]hat I eat is inextricably tied to where I eat, when I eat, why I eat and with whom I eat," she writes, her spin on M.F.K. Fisher's oft-quoted line, "Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others." I am proud that, before I deliver her to the reading, she takes several bites of the brightly colored, sparkling salad (several bites more than she intended to, just as M.F.K. Fisher did when served by a bullying, worshipful waitress in Burgundy in 1936), and judges the Mt. Tam that follows to be superb ("I'm surprised it was made in America," she says. "And it's made right here!" I say, pointing wildly in the direction of Point Reyes). And that, when I ask her what she would have ordered if she had been hungry, she says "the duck confit."